Compare and contrast. Amnesty International said last month that the US-led coalition killed hundreds of civilians in re-taking Raqqa from Islamic State (IS), many of them in airstrikes. Air commanders in Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) say they took the greatest care to avoid any such outcome. The UK Ministry of Defence still says that British airstrikes caused only one civilian casualty.
Air Cdre Johnny Stringer is a typically capable and conscientious RAF officer, who commanded the UK effort in OIR in 2016-17. In two briefings, I have heard him describe the precautions. A long ‘no-strike’ list of hospitals, water supply facilities, mosques and so on, enforced by ‘red-card holders’. No fewer than 500 in the Mosul campaign, and a similar proportion in Raqqa. Some of them ‘national caveats’ eg not recognised by other nations in the OIR coalition. The “huge intelligence effort” put into targeting, including long-duration prior observation by UAVs to establish the ‘pattern of life’. The Law of Armed Conflict interpreted by lawyers sitting alongside airmen in the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC).
Then a policy of using only precision-guided weapons, preferably with more than one guidance means. Forward air controllers in the vital areas whenever possible. No fewer than 3,600 weapons were dropped from RAF aircraft in 1,700 airstrikes during OIR. Even so, said Stringer, only 25% of all potential targets were struck. Aircrew were under orders to abort a strike if civilians appeared in view at the last moment.
Then a post-strike review of all targeting video and collateral sources to check that all went according to plan. First in the CAOC, but in some cases, referred back to the UK. And all the records are kept for two years, to help the ‘lessons learned’ process.
But Amnesty says that its 68-page report (available here) provides “prima facie evidence that several Coalition attacks violated international humanitarian law.” The NGO spent two weeks visiting 42 locations of strikes and interviewing 112 witnesses.
Amnesty acknowledges that IS used civilians as human shields. It also says that IS artillery and mortars caused much death and destruction. But it describes specific airstrikes that killed civilians in detail. Some of them were performed with “wide-area munitions,” it says.
Ninety percent of the OIR airstrikes on Raqqa were performed by the US forces, the remainder by France and the UK, according to Amnesty. It makes no mention of any Russian or Syrian air activity (and there is no doubt that they used mostly ‘dumb’ weapons and routinely hit civilians).
Referring to the ‘pattern of life’ intelligence technique, Amnesty says that “the daily routines adopted by civilians attempting to survive in a high-intensity urban conflict were not particular to Raqqa and had been observed in other conflicts in other countries.”
I find it impossible to square this particular circle. Maybe the US took less care than the Brits. Maybe the survivors confused airstrikes with ground-launched weapons – with IS sometimes pulling the trigger.
Whatever the truth, I get very depressed when I view the images of so much urban destruction. How will Ramadi, Mosul, Raqqa and other cities be rebuilt?
Stringer has said that the OIR coalition had “moral clarity in the fight, against an amoral and nihilistic enemy with no respect for civilian life.” He predicts that there will be more air operations in urban environments in future conflicts.
But will it ever be worthwhile?